India's PM inaugurates controversial temple as he looks ahead to upcoming elections | World News

A 19th-century dispute that went through decades of litigation has finally culminated in the Ram temple.

Dedicated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opened on Monday, this temple site is considered the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of the most revered gods in the Hindu pantheon.

The construction of the temple has been one of the most contentious and contentious issues in modern India for years.

Both Hindus and Muslims have laid claim to the 2.77-hectare plot – the size of a football field – where the Babri Mosque has stood since the 16th century.

Hindus believe that the Mughal Emperor Babur destroyed an original Ram temple and built the Babri Mosque on the exact same spot in 1528.

The mosque's demolition sparked riots across India in which 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died.

The dispute ended in 2019 when India's Supreme Court called the demolition of the mosque an “egregious violation” of the law, but left the site to the Hindus while giving another plot of land to the Muslims.

Thousands of people attended the invitation-only ceremony. Image: AP

The city of Ayodhya in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has been completely spruced up and undergone an extensive redesign in the run-up to the inauguration

Saffron flags, cutouts of Lord Ram, marigold strings, decorative lights with Hindu symbols and new paint have transformed this sleepy, small, run-down town.

Large LED screens will show the consecration across the country, while Indian embassies will carry it around the world and even on a sponsored screen in Times Square in New York.

Namit Khanna, who traveled from Singapore to attend the ceremony, tells Sky News: “It's a civilizational moment I feel for all of us in India and it's been a years-long struggle of our ancestors.”

Rishab Kaushal says, “It’s like a different world, the 500-year gap has been closed. We are all so happy. We have been given a new feast…Today our Lord has been given to us.”

Preeti holds her 7-month-old baby and says, “Our ancestors died waiting for a moment like this. And today we are so happy. And we would like to thank Modi for allowing us to see the temple built in our lifetime.”

The temple was built over an old demolished mosque. Image: AP

Mr. Modi is everywhere. His presence in the temple town cannot be missed and everyone credits him with the construction of the Ram Temple.

While only 8,000 people were officially invited, over 100,000 came to the city, including Bollywood royalty, industrialists, cultural icons, sportspersons and diplomats.

According to the Temple Trust, donations total over 4 trillion rupees (£38 billion), coming from far and wide.

Conspicuous by their absence are opposition party leaders, who have described the inauguration as a political project by Mr. Modi and his ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. They will stay away from today's program and come another day.

Several senior Hindu priests and heads of four major shrines, the Shankaracharyas, also refused to attend, saying that the consecration of an unfinished temple undermined the scriptures.

The temple opens to the public on Tuesday and its management expects at least 100,000 visitors a day in the first few months.

The site has long been an intense religious focus

The site has been bitterly disputed for decades and has been claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.

In 1949, idols of Lord Ram were found in the central dome of the mosque and a large number of Hindus started praying there. This led to protests from Muslims and the government closed the mosque's gates and declared it a disputed site.

In the 1980s, right-wing Hindu organizations and the BJP seized on the Ram Janam Bhoomi Ayodhya movement as a kind of Hindu renaissance. The promise of reclaiming the land and rebuilding the temple brought them to the center of national politics.

On December 6, 1992, the Babri Mosque was destroyed by thousands of right-wing volunteers calling themselves “Kar Sevaks.” The events sparked religious unrest across the country in which around 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.

The site was subsequently heavily protected and ownership was fought over in a number of ongoing court cases by various groups.

On November 9, 2019, India's Supreme Court, in a unanimous verdict by a five-judge bench, awarded the disputed site to the Hindus and rejected the Muslims' claim.

The court said: “Archaeological evidence supports an underlying structure of Hindu origin. The Muslim parties have not been able to prove exclusive ownership of the disputed land.”

The court directed the government to give the Muslims an alternative piece of land, about 25 km away in a village called Dhannipur.

Other than a broken barbed wire fence, there are no signs of construction work at this site.

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Sitting on a charpoy on the vacant land, 72-year-old Mohammad Islam tells Sky News: “Look, it was wrong, but we have to live within the limits of the constitution. We have to stick to it when a decision is right or not right. But we need to move forward and put the problems with temples and mosques behind us now.”

Shahbaz Khan, a 33-year-old welder, says: “Modi is the prime minister of the country, not just a community. We have no problems with the temple, we are happy. But there must also be development for us. The verdict. “The BJP motto is ‘development for all’ but we see that development is only for one.”

Religious divide

The Ayodhya issue has polarized the country for decades and the gap between the majority of Hindus and their 182 million Muslim brethren has widened.

Hinduism is almost 4,000 years old and is the religion of almost 80% of the population. The first Islamic dynasty was founded in the 13th century and Muslims make up about 14% of the population.

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Since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power since 2014, there has been a deepening social divide and strong Hindu nationalism that has contributed to religious tensions.

Restrictions on the slaughter and sale of cows (revered by Hindus) have led to vigilantism and the killing of a number of Muslim traders transporting cattle.

Mr Modi is seeking a third term in elections. Image: AP

Today's ceremony is seen as a political victory for Mr Modi and his party and will further cement his popularity among the majority.

It will also help him win more votes in the upcoming summer general election, which he is widely expected to win.

It is hoped that with the construction of the Ram Temple, the deepening religious divisions and hostility between the two communities in the country will finally come to an end.

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